A Tribute to Polykarp Kusch
In September 1972, three years after the creation of The University of Texas at Dallas, Professor Polykarp Kusch was vigorously recruited to join UTD as the first Nobel Laureate to live and teach in the Southwest.
Born in Blankenburg, Germany, on Jan. 26, 1911, Kusch came to the U.S. in 1912, and became a naturalized citizen in 1923. He attended primary schools in several small Midwestern towns where his father was a Lutheran minister, eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduating from high school there a day after his fifteenth birthday. To earn money for college he took a job as a Page at the Cleveland Public Library and in 1927 enrolled as a chemistry student at the Case Institute of Technology - now known as Case Western Reserve. He later switched to physics with a specialty in optical molecular spectroscopy.
His B.S. was earned at Case's School of Applied Science in 1931 where he designed most of the scientific apparatus used for his experiments in those days. After accepting a Teaching Assistantship at the University of Illinois and working on optical spectroscopy of molecules, he earned his PhD in 1936. In 1937 Kusch began working with I.I. Rabi's Molecular Beam Group at Columbia University. Rabi's work on the resonance method for recording the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei won the Nobel Prize seven years later. After a two-year stint working on High Frequency Vacuum Tubes at Bell Laboratories, Kusch returned to Columbia in 1946. That year he was stricken with mumps and confined to bed. The disease impaired his hearing and sense of balance. Afterwards, he had to relearn how to walk. Alone during this time he put together an apparatus for molecular beam research. This apparatus was an important exponent in the work that brought Kusch his own Nobel Prize in 1955. He shared the Prize with Willis Lamb who had done related work. Their measurements provided the experimental underpinnings for the theory of electrodynamics. Subsequent measurements of the magnetic moment of the electron and continuing refinements of the theory of electrodynamics have resulted in the most precise confrontation between theory and experiment in the history of Physics. Some of his work was instrumental in the later development of the MRI technology. He told his students, "The pleasure of having apparatus of one's own design function perfectly down to the last screw hole is, I am certain, much greater than opening a crate. To design one's own apparatus is equivalent to asking questions in one's own way."
Kusch dearly loved his work, especially the teaching. He once said, "I describe myself as an adequate scientist, but I am a superb teacher." This simple statement is supported from one of his students in a letter that reads, "I didn't become a physicist or engineer but a teacher in the New York City System... Your inspiration has made me a successful teacher. One of my students... teaches at M.I.T. Others have gone on to law, doctoring, computers, business and, yes, even teaching. People like you, sir, have made the world a better place. The cascade effect of your philosophies and personality will carry on for ages. God bless you." At least one of his students, Harold Brown, won a Nobel Prize.
In 1983 the publisher of the Miami Herald happened to see a picture of Kusch in the paper while passing through DFW airport. He wrote that he got chills just seeing the picture because as a journalism student he had to take a physics course from Kusch at Columbia. He described his experiences and ended by telling Kusch that he had been influenced by him to remain humble!
In the 1960's Kusch took on administrative duties at Columbia, serving as vice president and dean of faculties and then became the vice president for Academic Affairs and Provost. He was also a consultant to the IBM Corporation and a fellow at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. After two more years of teaching at Columbia, he left to embark upon a new adventure as a professor of Physics at a small school in Texas - The University of Texas at Dallas - because the idea of helping to build a university that would maybe not be quite like the ones that were in existence appealed to him immensely. He held the Eugene McDermott Chair at UT Dallas and was later Regental Professor until his retirement in 1982. He once said, "I want life to be striking." Anyone who knew him or learns of this man's life, work, and accomplishments will understand what the word 'striking' meant. He had a booming voice that seemed to emanate from his toes, and was sorely affronted by any student dared to fall asleep in class. One did one day because he was taking powerful medication in order to be able to attend Kusch's class. Kusch ejected him from the class and ordered him not to return, but relented after hearing the reason.
Kusch didn't just rest on his laurels. He was a major contributor to the task of taking the small school built by the founders of Texas Instruments in a cotton field near Dallas and moving it to national recognition. His efforts brought many celebrated personalities, including a large number of other Nobel Laureates, to the campus for lectures, talks and seminars. He designed courses, wrote the attendant literature, went out for funding, and taught those classes in an auditorium which was subsequently named Polykarp Kusch Auditorium in his honor. For his lecture demonstration course, "The Phenomena of Nature," he was able to assemble a first-rate collection of equipment (including a very pricey flawless crystal sphere which was donated by the Dow Corning Corp.) and wrote class notes for students and assembly notes for other teachers. This course has been a splendid vehicle for demonstrating to physicists and non-physicists alike just how nature works. His experiments and demonstrations were so well conceived and insightful that many have remained unchanged in the course that has been a fundamental of our curriculum for these many years following his retirement.
He is further honored annually by an endowed lecture series called, "The Polykarp Kusch Lecture Series: Concerns of the Lively Mind" which features speakers from a very large range of interests which are, indeed, concerns of lively minds. When Case Western University notified him that a building there had been named after him, he said "People who have buildings named for them are usually either very rich or very dead, and since I am neither, I am doubly honored." His sense of humor was as quick as his mind.
One day in 1975 after his AA had commenced posting one-liners on the bulletin board outside the office, Kusch sat down and composed the following to be posted:
Please remember the following for any forthcoming examination you may take:
Kusch served as the Chair of the Committee on Qualifications during the period when UT Dallas was expanding the undergraduate school. More than 245 professors were hired, necessitating interviews with almost 800 applicants. He was tireless in the pursuit of outstanding candidates. All itineraries and travel arrangements were made through his office. The committee also controlled promotions of current professors and selection of new administrative officers (presidents, vice presidents, etc.) who had to be approved by the Coordinating Board.
All during his career he was very much concerned by physical realities and human rights. He traveled all over the world in connections with those concerns. Indeed, he even had the audacity to lecture about global population control at Catholic universities. The exponential growth of world population greatly disturbed him. The fact that farm lands all over the world are being covered by concrete and buildings pushed him to lecture earnestly and often about the need for controlling the population growth. Another deep concern was alternative energy sources. He was very much opposed to nuclear plants not only because of the apparent dangers, but especially because of the long half-life of nuclear waste and the problems involved in dealing with it.
Perhaps part of his love of books and reading was acquired while working at the Cleveland Public Library. It was there that he made the awesome discovery of the great oceans of knowledge that had been accumulated by man. He read all kinds of things-not especially science-ravenously. Mostly he discovered the idea of a life of dimension. He learned that man could have large aspirations even when the probability of achieving these aspirations appeared to be minute. He discovered that there are waves and perhaps that waves could even be made. He constantly urged his students to think. He thought that if he could get them to just think they would somehow learn. His bedtime reading consisted of the 26 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary; however, he did not presume to use arcane words when a regular word served the purpose better. He cherished the hope that civilized man would survive the problems of the tortured 20th century.
During his lifetime, Kusch was honored by the award of eight honorary degrees: Case Western Reserve University, University of Illinois, Ohio State University, Colby College, Gustavus Adolphus College, Yeshiva University, Incarnate Word College and Columbia University. He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1956 and served on two National Bureau of Standards evaluation panels in the 1970s. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he was the recipient of the Alexander Hamilton Medal and the Great Teacher Award from Columbia University, the Amoco Foundation Outstanding Teaching Award, and the University of Illinois' Illini Achievement Award.
Membership in other societies included those in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Physics Teachers, American Philosophical Society and the Texas Historical Society.
- Marjorie D. Renfrow
Dept. of Physics, UT Dallas